Heat Check: 2021-22 NBA Eastern Conference preview

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By , Audacy Sports

Welcome to the Heat Check (formerly called This League), my NBA Podcast now on the Audacy Network.

Our first episode of the new season dropped this morning and is available on Spotify, Apple, and everywhere else you get your podcasts.

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2021/2022 Season Eastern Conference Preview
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We break down the Eastern Conference on today’s episode, so in conjunction with that, here’s my opinion on where each team will fit in the coming NBA season.

BROOKLYN NETS: BetMGM Win Total 56.5

A healthy James Harden plus a healthy Kevin Durant and added depth? Title or bust. This team does not need Kyrie. How do I know? Kyrie went on IG live and said he would not be vaccinated, and Vegas never moved the line. Not one bit. Because Vegas knows what all real hoops fans know: the Nets are the best team in the NBA even without Kyrie Irving.

PROJECTION: 58 wins, and #2 Seed in the East.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS: BetMGM Win Total 54.5

Mike Budenholzer loves nothing more than chasing regular season wins. In other words, he’s the anti-Steve Kerr. He did it with Atlanta and he’s done it with the Bucks. Giannis has a new jump shot, can shoot free throws in less than 10 seconds and is now a dark horse to win the MVP once again. On top of that, despite just having won a championship, the Bucks still see themselves as underdogs. I think the Bucks run away with the #1 seed in the East, especially given how the Nets will have to load manage Harden and Durant without Kyrie given their injury history.

PROJECTION: 60 wins, and #1 Seed in the East.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: BetMGM Win Total 50.5

Good news, bad news. Good news? Ben Simmons has returned to Philadelphia. Bad news? Ben Simmons has returned to Philadelphia (and doesn’t look like he’s going to play). Until he gets traded I can’t see the Sixers being the dominant Eastern conference team they were last season. Too much turmoil, too much uncertainty, too much weight on Joel Embiid’s shoulders (and injury-prone lower extremities).

PROJECTION: 48 wins, and a #5 seed.

MIAMI HEAT: BetMGM Win Total 48.5

Things are still up in the air with the Miami Heat. The culture is elite but is Kyle Lowry that big of an upgrade over a healthy Goran Dragic? Lots of questions. Tyler Herro hasn’t been the same since Jack Harlow made a song about him. Bam needs to relearn court spacing now with Lowry at the point. And the biggest question is, can the Heat actually score enough to keep up with the Bucks, Nets, and Hawks? They play great defense, but sometimes the offense looks painful. And they won’t have much help off the bench with one of the thinnest rosters in the East. This is a team built more for the postseason than for the long grind of 82 games.

PROJECTION: 44 wins, and a #7 seed.

ATLANTA HAWKS: BetMGM Win Total 47.5

My dark horse pick of the East. If this roster can stay healthy, which they struggled to do last regular season, there’s no telling how far this team can go. If Trae Young didn’t get taken out by a ref in the Eastern Conference Finals, they may very well have made the Finals. This roster is one of the most complete in the NBA, and Nate McMillan seems like the perfect fit to allow Trae to be Trae while instilling discipline in a young roster to close out tight games.

PROJECTION: 50 wins, and a #3 seed.

BOSTON CELTICS: BetMGM Win Total 45.5

If you’re a Boston Celtics fan, you HAVE to be excited they got rid of Brad Stevens. Kind of. I mean, he’s still looming over the team from the front office, but at least he’s not pretending to raise his voice in the locker room. This team will succeed or fail with new head coach Ime Udoka. The roster is still poorly constructed despite 60 percent roster turnover, but if he can figure out a way to make it all work, this team could be dangerous. If not, this team might miss the playoffs.

PROJECTION: 42 wins, and a #8 seed.

CHICAGO BULLS: BetMGM Win Total 42.5

This is a team that will be explosive and fun all season long. However, none of their entire starting five outside of Lonzo Ball plays defense, and none of them score nearly enough to make up for it. The roster lacks depth and scoring off the bench and none of the starters should be playing 40 minutes. Could this team be good? Sure. Is Billy Donovan equipped to make them good? Nope.

PROJECTION: 41 wins, and a #9 seed

INDIANA PACERS: BetMGM Win Total 42.5

I’m sorry. This roster is really good — lots of young pieces that can move without the ball and share it selflessly. The problem is they seem to do that about once every four games, tricking you into thinking they are a world beater and then laying an egg in the play-in tournament. I want to like them. I really do. I’m hoping I’m wrong. But with all the turmoil from last year and the uncertainty over players like Turner, TJ Warren and the guards maybe getting moved for Ben Simmons, I can’t see this team being better than a play-in.

PROJECTION: 39 wins, and a #11 seed

NEW YORK KNICKS: BetMGM Win Total 41.5

I get it. The New York Knicks haven’t been good in a long, long time. You’re skeptical. We all are. Tom Thibodeau is noted for running his players into the ground during the regular season, especially in Year 2. Kemba Walker has a long injury history as does Derrick Rose. Julius Randle emerged out of nowhere. They signed Evan Fournier (that needs no explanation). But this team plays hard and will always play hard as long as Thibs is at the helm. Does that bode well for their playoff chances? No. Does that make them very good in the regular season? Absolutely.

PROJECTION: 49 wins, and a #4 seed

CHARLOTTE HORNETS: BetMGM Win Total 38.5

This team is a story of boom or bust like a start up tech company. They could become the next Google or they could go under right after their IPO. This all hinges on health. Can Gordon Hayward play more than half a season? Can Terry Rozier continue as the clutchiest clutch player in the East now that he’s a starter again? I really hope so. This is a team that everybody wants to see succeed, mostly because they have LaMelo Ball. I’m really high on James Bouknight and who he could be and really like James Borrego as a sneaky COY candidate. But the East is stacked and this team is really young, so until they prove it, I can’t give them any more than a play-in prediction.

PROJECTION: 39 wins, and a #10 seed

TORONTO RAPTORS: BetMGM Win Total 35.5

This is going to shock people, but I think the one team that makes the most improvement this year over last is Toronto. Don’t forget that this team was #2 in the East when COVID-19 shut the league down. That was without Kawhi. And yes, they no longer have Kyle Lowry or Norman Powell, but they’ve added some nice pieces in Gary Trent Jr., Precious Achiuwa, Goran Dragic and Scottie Barnes. This team is going to play with an (almost) entire roster of guys measuring 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-9, which should make for some WILD matchups. Do they have enough shooting to complement their defense? If Miami does then Toronto does, only this team feels like it has more depth.

PROJECTION: 47 wins, and a #6 seed

WASHINGTON WIZARDS: BetMGM Win Total 33.5

I don’t trust Kyle Kuzma, do you? I saw him enough in Los Angeles to make a fully formed opinion. He’s a chucker. A bonafide chucker. Some nights he’ll look incredible. Some nights he’ll go 3 for 11 and a -22 out on the court. I like Brad Beal a lot, but will he be available to play in Sacramento, San Francisco, NY, Los Angeles or Toronto? They added pretty much an entirely new team in the Westbrook trade, but we’ll have to see if they actually got any better. Lots of questions. Bertans took a step back and it looks like his contract is becoming an albatross. Can Corey Kispert step in to be a sharpshooter that gets kick outs from Brad? Is Harrell a real solution at center or will Daniel Gafford be who they lean on? What’s happening with Rui Hachimura, who inexplicably unfollowed all of his teammates on social media when he went on walkabout? So much uncertainty, turmoil and a history of underperformance. I hope I’m wrong.

PROJECTION: 34 wins, and out of the play-in picture.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: BetMGM Win Total 26.5

Very few teams have as many exciting players and yet generate less actual excitement than the Cleveland Cavaliers. It might be because the team is located in Cleveland, Ohio. Darius Garland and Collin Sexton don’t fit together whatsoever. They have a million seven-footers on this roster that can’t all share the floor (and at least one big man who’s content to just sit on the bench and earn his $30 million without playing). Someone has got to be the odd man out between Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen and Evan Mobley, who the Cavs ALL committed to long-term... which leads me to leadership. The leadership of the Cavs, from ownership all the way down to coaching, has sucked for a long time. Getting rid of Ty Lue was one of the dumbest decisions I’ve seen in basketball. All that to say, I trust absolutely nothing about this franchise but I do think they have enough talent to win more than 26 games.

PROJECTION: 29 wins and the lottery

DETROIT PISTONS: BetMGM Win Total 24.5

I love what Troy Weaver and Dwayne Casey are doing in Detroit. Do I think they’ll be good this year? No. But I do think they’ll be exciting, because they were already fun to watch last year when they only won 20 games. This is a team that will beat contenders randomly because they all have chips on their shoulders. Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, Kelly Olynyk and Josh Jackson all have been overlooked at different stages of their careers which means they’ll play with grit for Dwayne Casey night after night. Their careers depend on it. I’m not 100 percent sold on Cade Cunningham making an immediate impact, but he has the potential to be really special (even though he looks smaller than his advertised height of 6’8).

PROJECTION: 30 wins and the lottery

ORLANDO MAGIC: BetMGM Win Total 22.5

Ugh. Orlando. A team that went from being a playoff team (7th and 8th in the East from 2018-2020) to… this. From a solid core of starters to a team led by Markelle Fultz (Philly broke his mind and jumpshot and Orlando broke his body) and Wendell Carter. Two players who came into the league with HIGH expectations and haven’t quite yet delivered. Can Jalen Suggs, the rookie with ice water running through his veins, do enough to elevate this team to even mediocrity? Not right now. Not in this stacked east. Not with all of the turmoil surrounding Jonathan Isaac, who has gone from a player other teams salivated over trading for, to being the resident anti-vaxxer chilling at the bottom of Orlando’